Auction Trends in 2023

Auction Trends in 2023
by Eliane & Jon Dotson
We can’t believe the year is almost over – 2023 has been a whirlwind! Each year seems to pass faster than the last, and we do our best to hold on to every precious moment for as long as we can. As some of you may know, we have two teenagers who will be out of the house all too soon, so we are trying to pack in as many family memories as possible before they are out on their own. This year we had the great fortune of spending time skiing and snowboarding in the mountains of Montana as well as relaxing on the beaches of North Carolina. Whether it’s hot or cold outside, we usually find a way to enjoy the great outdoors. Fortunately, our business allows us to balance our work life and our home life, and we feel very lucky to have a job that we love that gives us the flexibility to spend quality time with our family.
We like to end each year by reviewing our business and taking note of the trends in the auction market. As M.B.A.s and self-professed data junkies, we take this process seriously and use the information we glean to make adjustments to our business and ensure that we are on the path of continuous improvement. From modifying what types of consignments we accept, to finding better ways to promote our auctions, to making updates to the website, we believe that understanding the past will help us make a better future. And as always, we share our insights with our bidders and consignors to assist them in their future buying and selling decisions.
Overall, 2023 was a positive year for Old World Auctions, but not quite as strong as 2021-2022. While we typically simply compare our business year-over-year, we have realized that there is a difference between the pandemic years and pre-pandemic. The pandemic years of 2021-2022 were particularly strong – in fact they were two of the best years OWA has experienced since it began operations in 1978. While it is a bit disappointing that we haven’t quite maintained that momentum, our metrics are well ahead of pre-pandemic levels. In addition, we continue to beat the auction industry average for sell-through, which is calculated as the percent of items that sold at auction. OWA sold over 80% of the material we offered in 2023, compared with the industry average of 78% as reported by Rare Book Hub, which aggregates auction results from the rare, antiquarian and collectible market globally.
We eclipsed 4,000 lot listings for the first time ever in 2023, and sold just over 80% of the lots. Our sell-through was a slight decrease from the pandemic years of 2022 (82%) and 2021 (87%), but well above the previous 5-year average of 74%. Given the increase in lots offered in 2023, we were essentially even with 2022 in terms of the number of lots sold. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, we sold 21% more lots, which was driven by stronger sell-through and more material listed at auction. For 2023, the average hammer price was $377, or about 18% lower than 2021 and 2022, but 6% higher than 2020. This metric naturally jumps around each year, and is primarily driven by the number of higher-value lots we offer each year. Yet while the average selling price was down in 2023, the higher-value lots (those above $5,000) sold better than in 2022, both in terms of sell-through and hammer price (compared with the low estimate). We see opportunity in 2024 for adding more high-value items as the market appetite remains strong for these items.
Another important aspect of the business is bidder participation. In 2023, 17% of our bidders were new to OWA, and over half of our bidders have been customers for at least 5 years. We take pride in the fact that our customers continue to bid in our auctions year after year!
Trends in Cartography
In 2023, we focused on improving the mix of material offered in our auctions. Based on the results from 2022 and previous years, we accepted fewer items related to Europe and Asia, which had been lower-performing categories. In addition, we increased the amount of North American material, as all of the regions that fall within this category had been top performers in 2022.
Even though we increased the volume of North American material, these regions continued to sell well and surpassed the OWA average rate of sell-through. Atlases and reference books also had high sell-through rates (91% and 99% respectively), although over half of the reference books were offered at “no reserve,” effectively guaranteeing their sale. Several smaller categories also performed well, including maps of the continent of South America (96%), maps of the United States & Mexico (92%), and polar maps (91%).
Unfortunately, regional and city maps within Europe and Asia remain below average in performance. Maps of the United Kingdom (including country-specific, regional maps, and city plans), which had previously been strong sellers for OWA, appeared to decline significantly in 2023; however, this was due to a 12% increase in the number of items offered. Celestial charts is another category that had traditionally been popular but performed poorly in 2023, selling only 60% of the items offered.
Trends by Century

Although the trends by century are very similar from 2022 to 2023, one key difference is regarding 20th century maps. This category had the highest sell-through from 2020-2022, prompting OWA to source more 20th century material. We increased the number of items in this category by 22% this year, which resulted in a decrease in sell-through from 96% in 2022 to 85% in 2023. While this is still higher than the OWA average, we may have overshot the goal on volume of material and will reassess for the upcoming year. 
Top Selling Items
For the fifth year in a row, the majority of our top selling lots (8 out of 10) were focused on the U.S. Of these, four related to Florida, while two were of the eastern U.S. For the first time in several years, maps of California and Texas did not make an appearance in the top 10. One item was a historical document, a category that we added a few years ago to complement our cartographic offerings. Another interesting aspect is that 8 of the top 10 were published in the 20th century and a remarkable 9 of the 10 were published within only a 55-year period (1885-1940).  We have continually seen strong interest in late 19th to early 20th century material over the last few years and anticipate it will continue in 2024. The top 10 list includes:
1. Auction 193 - Lot 246. Complete Map of Florida and the South…, by Matthews-Northrup,1902. Sold for $3250 -- 1,000% above the high estimate
2. Auction 195 - Lot 186. Official Atlantic Coastal Highway Association Map from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida, by Wilmington Chamber of Commerce,1929. Sold for $1600 -- 941% above the high estimate
3. Auction 193 - Lot 189. Southern Route Book - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, by Goodrich Tires,1916. Sold for $800 -- 471% above the high estimate
4. Auction 193 - Lot 252. Florida East Coast Railway Key West Extension…, by Florida East Coast Railway,1908. Sold for $2500 -- 385% above the high estimate
5. Auction 194 - Lot 355. I. Tamaraca, by Caspar Barlaeus,1647. Sold for $700 -- 368% above the high estimate
6. Auction 194 - Lot 272. White Mountain National Forest New Hampshire - Maine, by Tom Culverwell ,1940. Sold for $750 -- 341% above the high estimate
7. Auction 191 - Lot 154. Lynchings and What They Mean, by Southern Commission on the Study of Lynchings,1931. Sold for $1100 -- 339% above the high estimate
8. Auction 194 - Lot 246. Announcement Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, by Florida East Coast Railway,1912. Sold for $550 -- 324% above the high estimate
9. Auction 191 - Lot 272. [Map with Booklet] The Disston Lands of Florida..., by Florida Land and Improvement Co.,1885. Sold for $700 -- 304% above the high estimate
10. Auction 194 - Lot 37. Our Flying Ambassadors and Their Routes, by C.S. Hammond,1929. Sold for $300 -- 300% above the high estimate
The Year Ahead
There were positives and negatives in 2023, and reflecting on these will help us steer the business in the right direction in the future. Overall, we feel good about 2023. Any time we sell over 80% of the material in our auctions, we see that as a great success. And while we need to work on increasing our average hammer price, we feel optimistic about the fact that our higher-value items are still selling very well. We certainly want to continue doing the things that have worked well for us in the past, such as offering a broad selection of material, providing excellent customer service, and investing in our website to make it as user-friendly as possible. We believe that these competencies have allowed us to maintain a strong group of core customers and are why “word of mouth” is one of the most common sources of new bidders for OWA.
However, as our customer base evolves, and as the marketplace changes, we need to ensure we are offering the right material. This is an aspect of our business that we tweak every year – sourcing more of the material that is selling well and reducing material that isn’t in line with our customers’ interests.
For 2024, we are focusing on more of the following material:
  • Maps of the world, western hemisphere, North America, Canada and United States
  • 16th and 19th century material (with the latter focusing on the United States)
  • Higher-value items (over $1,000 in value)
If you would like to consign material, please send a list of the items along with photos to Please note that OWA requires a $2,500 consignment minimum.
From all of us at Old World Auctions, we thank you for your support in 2023 and wish you a Happy New Year!